Charlotte Rampling, whose best actress Oscar nomination for 45 Years is her first, talks about her personal losses during a life on screen.

By Helen Barlow.

Charlotte Rampling’s Oscars debut for ’45 Years’

Charlotte Rampling
Charlotte Rampling
Credit: Madman Entertainment

Charlotte Rampling knows there is little chance of her taking out the best actress statuette at the Oscars. And this is before she told French radio that complaints about the all-white shortlist were “racist to white people”. At 70, she has received her first nomination from the academy, for 45 Years. The young, heavily promoted women, Brie Larson and Saoirse Ronan, look to have it all sewn up. Still, she is overwhelmed to be in contention.

“It’s a beautiful gift, because the world loves the film,” she says. “You can’t ask for anything more. It feels good.”

She also clarifies her comments on race: “I simply meant to say that in an ideal world every performance will be given equal opportunities for consideration.”

Rampling is on a career high. The long-time Paris resident has impressed recently in the television series Dexter, Broadchurch and London Spy, and is brilliant in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years. She has already been named best actress at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival and received an honorary award from the European Film Academy for the performance, as well as the best performance in a British film gong in Edinburgh.

In the film, she is everything but herself: completely without glamour, content in a 45-year marriage, leading a rural existence with a man older than herself, whose secrets of an earlier life feed back to change them.

“Well, that’s why I am interested in acting, so I can experience different ways of life that I would never necessarily be in myself,” she says, laughing. “I don’t know why you don’t think I would be in those kinds of relationships, though that’s true, I haven’t been in them. In a way it was rather lovely to do, but I thought, ‘Oh, I am glad it’s only six weeks!’ ”

Rampling always has to find a part of herself in her characters, to relate to them even if they are very different from her.

“I didn’t find a connection with Kate’s way of life because that has nothing to do with how I live,” she admits, referring to her character, alongside Tom Courtenay’s Geoff. “Geoff and Kate, I think they had a good life. She taught, so she was quite independent with her students; he was in his thing. They were happy with that simplicity, which is very rich, too.

“What I connected with was the cost of something that happens at any time of your life. It’s like the crack-up. Your whole edifice starts to crack, for whatever reason. This is very spooky and strange and Kate has no idea why she is cracking up like that. It starts a whole tsunami of emotions she just can’t control.”

The first time I met Rampling, she was 48 and playing alongside a young Russell Crowe in Ann Turner’s Hammers Over the Anvil, an Australian film shot in the Adelaide Hills in 1991. The turn-of-the-century romance about a woman trapped in a staid marriage enticed Rampling out of a two-and-a-half-year self-imposed hiatus following her treatment for depression and a nervous breakdown. She had been dealing with the suicide of her sister Sarah, who killed herself aged 23 just after giving birth prematurely in 1966. The toll had been great. The two had performed in a cabaret act together during their teenage years and had always been very close. At the time of Charlotte’s breakdown, it was still reported that Sarah had died of a brain haemorrhage. The family, led by a strict army colonel father, had kept the suicide from Rampling’s mother and it was not until her passing in 2001 that the true cause of death was reported.

“I just needed time to be very quiet and reflective and contemplative and alone,” Rampling explained at the time, in soft deliberate tones. “I wanted time for myself. I’d given a lot of time to my family and to my career. I said to myself that I’d come out when I was ready and it was Ann who tempted me out.”

Hammers Over the Anvil was a film few people saw. Crowe was really known only for another Australian film, Proof, and audiences had largely forgotten Rampling as the sultry star of 1966’s Georgy Girl. It had been some time since she played the young victim of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 feature The Damned or the former concentration camp inmate in 1974’s The Night Porter.

In the ’70s Rampling had been hailed a new kind of international film star: mysterious, sensual, dangerous. Her androgynous appearance in The Night Porter turned her into a gay icon around the time David Bowie made such things fashionable. With her high cheekbones, piercing oval green eyes and impenetrable glare she had “the look”, as Dirk Bogarde, her “greatest friend in the business right until his death”, termed it.

Unlike her Kate, Rampling had two failed marriages. In 1972 she tied the knot with her New Zealand-born publicist, Bryan Southcombe, with whom she had her eldest son, Barnaby, now a film and television director who cast her in the title role of his impressive 2012 movie, I, Anna. She soon left Southcombe for the dashing French pioneer of electronic music Jean-Michel Jarre, whom she watched devotedly from the side of stage at his concerts during their 20-year marriage. Together they had a son, David Jarre, now a magician and singer. The marriage was dissolved in 1997 after she learnt from the tabloids of his apparent affair with his 31-year-old secretary.

Rampling had been such an icon for gay French filmmaker François Ozon that when he moulded his death-haunted 2000 film, Under the Sand, around her rarified and sometimes glacial persona, she was the first to admit that he probably understood her better than many of the men who had been in her life.

Rapidly rising through the ranks to become one of his country’s top filmmakers, Ozon, a talented visual stylist, would revive Rampling’s career in cinema-obsessed France, where she finally won a slew of awards. They would go on to make three more films together: 2003’s Swimming Pool, which won her the European Film Award for best actress, 2007’s Angel and 2013’s Young & Beautiful. She even partially disrobed in Swimming Pool, becoming a poster girl for ageing sexuality as the paranoid crime writer Sarah, named for her late sister.

In past interviews with Rampling – including for Fred Schepisi’s Australian film The Eye of the Storm, where she played Patrick White’s feisty dying matriarch – I found her a reluctant interviewee, but over the years she has slowly come out of her shell. Her films with Ozon helped. Working with Andrew Haigh was similar. Like Under the Sand, 45 Years is a moody, atmospheric piece.

“It was made for me,” Rampling notes. “It’s the same thing François wanted, though François didn’t have the script. It was wonderful that this happened again.”

That she seems so well matched to Ozon and Haigh’s visions perhaps highlights similarities between the directors.

“They are both the sunniest, loveliest, smiling creatures and they’ve got all this stuff going on and they are both gay and the same age. Kate in 45 Years could be the long version of Marie from Under the Sand. It’s very much about that same fibre of filmmaking and portraying a woman.”

I ask Rampling if she sees a trend in older actresses becoming more forthright, speaking on issues they might once have left untouched.

“Sure”, she says. “Maybe for me not so much in my career, but certainly in my own personality. In my career I am looking for work like this film. I am not looking for acting roles like Nicole Kidman or Helen Mirren could do. I am not up to that: it’s never been quite my world. I would be rather scared about that. I like coming up and opening doors from underneath and revealing things not in a particularly showy way.”

Recently in television, Rampling has found an unshowy niche. First she appeared in the two-part 2012 miniseries Restless as the older version of Hayley Atwell’s character, for which she was nominated for an Emmy, then in the final season of Dexter she was psychiatry expert Dr Evelyn Vogel, and most recently a lawyer in Broadchurch.

“It’s a lovely way of creating a world: you just climb on board and the character develops as you go along,” she says. “You don’t really know what’s going to develop. You know the arc of it, but you don’t know what the details are going to be. There is this great independence about it, too, because you hold your role and you know you are going to be the role through a certain amount of time.”

Rampling has also begun writing, recently publishing Qui je suis (Who I Am). Ten years in the making, the book is a collection of ruminations on a life rather than a strict autobiography. It has yet to be published in English. Long the muse for fashion designers and artists including Juergen Teller, for whom she once posed nude next to the Mona Lisa, Rampling certainly adores her life in France. She originally moved there to be with Jarre, after studying at a French private school in her youth.

“I went and married there, had my kids there, brought my kids up there and stayed on. I spend a lot of time in London but I love living in Paris. It just really suits me.”

Lately she loves to spend time at home, with her grandkids and her beloved cats. Until his recent death, aged 59, from cancer, she lived with business tycoon Jean-Noël Tassez. Despite being engaged since 1998, the couple never married. “No, I’m not marrying this man, even though he’d like to,” she told me a few years back. “There have been too many husbands.” At the time, she never suspected that she would outlive her younger partner, who passed away last October just as 45 Years was gaining momentum during awards season. “Yes, all this has come with a sacrifice,” she tells me now. “All this beauty has come with a sacrifice. I’ve had that all through my life.”

Even so, she says Tassez would be incredibly proud of her Oscar nomination. “I never thought I’d be in a film that would get this kind of warmth and push. There was kind of a cheer level, as if I was being carried. The fact that my partner died right in the middle of it, in October, it’s almost like he’s sort of helping.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2016 as "Charlotte’s deb".

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Helen Barlow is a Paris-based film writer.

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